Rachel Whiteread hasn’t moved on in two decades. For “Detached,” her exhibition of sculpture at the Gagosian Gallery in London, she is doing exactly the same thing as when she first came to fame with “House” in 1993. She is still making casts of the internal space of structures.
“House” was a molding in concrete of the inside of an ordinary 19th-century dwelling. The centerpiece of the new show is made up of three casts of the interiors of garden sheds. This isn’t so much a sign of lack of inspiration as a return to form.
It might sound like a criticism to say that an artist has not developed. That’s not necessarily so. Some artists innovate dynamically throughout their careers; you might call that the Picasso model. Others carry on doing the same thing, and -- so long as they carry on doing it well -- that’s no disgrace.
The point of Whiteread’s work is that she is simultaneously a minimalist and a realist. The three concrete casts of sheds are placed in the middle of the main gallery at Gagosian very much as if they were big abstract sculptures by, say, Richard Serra or Donald Judd.
They have much the same chunky presence as works by those two artists. Whiteread’s work is not abstract. Go up close, and you find a meticulous record of the surface of ordinary things: wood grain, door fittings, the covering of the roof.
One of the traditional functions of art is to represent ordinary objects in a way that makes them seem beautiful and/or interesting. Suddenly sheds aren’t just boringly mundane.
Whiteread was one of the younger artists of the 1990s for whom the late Lucian Freud had most time. When you think about it, you can see why. He too spent a great deal of time reproducing such things as floorboards, doors and window frames. For that matter, Velasquez devoted a lot of effort to depicting a water pitcher, Caravaggio a peeling wall.
Whiteread isn’t a painter but that quite unusual thing, a still-life sculptor. The challenge for an artist who makes pictures is to collapse the three dimensions of the world onto a flat surface. For a sculptor, the fundamental problem is to make an object that will be different enough from all the other 3D stuff in the world to seem interesting and maybe beautiful.
Whiteread’s basic strategy has often been to make a cast of negative space: the inside of a house, a room, or as in this exhibition, sheds. It’s a technique with limitations, yet it leaves room for much artistic choice in material and subject. Turning an object inside out automatically makes it strange.
In another series of works in the next gallery, she uses a different strategy: she makes objects semi-transparent. These are casts of 18th- and 19th-century doors and windows made in pastel resin, tinted rose and turquoise. The interior of the wooden doors becomes visible. Because of the resin’s color, the windows with their frames become one solid, sculptural shape.
Whiteread’s basic idea doesn’t allow much development. When she tries something radically new, it often doesn’t work (as is the case with the flattened works on paper in this show). The variations on what she has done before look impressive.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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